Did Mitt Romney just get played by the king of reality TV? And why did the former Massachusetts governor subject himself to a very public vetting by a man he had so thoroughly denounced? Because he’s a patriot? Or a flip-flopper who can’t resist the lure of power?
The political class was wrestling again with these questions on Tuesday, after President-elect Donald Trump announced that he had passed over Romney for the job of secretary of state and would instead nominate Rex W. Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil.
The announcement marked the end of a bizarre courtship and another rejection for Romney, who lost two campaigns for president and seemed to have set aside irreconcilable differences in pursuit of a Cabinet position with a man he had denounced as a “fraud” and a “phony.”
In hindsight, some said that the famously thin-skinned Trump never truly intended to install Romney and form a “team of rivals.” Trump, after all, has counseled would-be acolytes in the business world that “when someone crosses you, my advice is ‘Get even!’ ”
“It’s hard to believe that Trump ever seriously considered him for the position, and it’s not hard to believe at all that Trump was simply interested in trying to humiliate Romney in public,” said Dan Schnur, a former aide to Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, who is now director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “But Mitt Romney is a very smart person and it’s unlikely that he was at all surprised by what the process turned out to be.”
Romney confidants say they still believe Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence were genuinely vetting Romney for the job, with phone calls, a meeting at Trump’s golf course in Bedminster, N.J., and a sumptuous two-hour dinner at Jean Georges in Manhattan, complete with frog legs and diver scallops.
“I don’t buy that Trump and Pence and their top advisers would spend all this time and energy if it were just an effort to harass Mitt,” said Dan Senor, who has advised Romney on foreign policy. “The substantive conversations and meetings reflected a serious process.”
Romney sincerely wanted the job as a way to influence a president he had warned could threaten American democracy and stability, Senor said.
“Mitt wasn’t expecting or looking for a job,” he said. “But when they talked to him about the secretary of state position, he believed he could serve the country best and be more effective as a member of the president’s team, rather than trying to make his voice heard from the bleachers.”
Others said Romney’s willingness to ingratiate himself with Trump was in keeping with his long history of shifting positions to advance his political prospects.
“For [one] brief shining moment Romney this summer stood on [a] shining hill of integrity,” Matthew Dowd, a former strategist on George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign and an ABC News political analyst, wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “He threw that all away in pursuing position over principle.”
Barney Frank, the former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, also took a dim view of Romney’s interest in serving Trump.
“I was appalled by it,” he said. “Is he that eager, that desperate for an office? He didn’t just disagree with Trump, he totally denigrated the man — not unreasonably, it seemed to me.”
Romney, who was endorsed by Trump when he ran for president in 2012, had emerged as perhaps the most vocal leader of the “Never Trump” movement this year.
In March, he delivered a blistering speech in which he attacked Trump as a threat to the country’s values, warning that Trump was “playing the American public for suckers.” Trump hit back, calling Romney a “choke artist” for losing to President Obama.
After the election, aides say, Romney called to congratulate Trump and the two started talking and meeting. After the dinner at Jean Georges late last month, Romney said he felt “increasing hope that President-elect Trump is the very man who can lead us to that better future.”
For his wooing, Romney was roundly mocked on social media, and excoriated by some in Trump’s orbit.
Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, warned that nominating such a harsh critic to lead the State Department would be a betrayal to Trump’s supporters. Newt Gingrich said he had never seen a former presidential candidate “suck up at the rate that Mitt Romney is sucking up.” And Roger Stone, a longtime Trump advisor, said Trump was interviewing Romney “in order to torture him.”
Then, on Monday, Trump called Romney and told him he was not going to get the job.
“It was an honor to have been considered for secretary of state of our great country,” Romney wrote on Facebook that night. “My discussions with President-elect Trump have been both enjoyable and enlightening. I have very high hopes that the new administration will lead the nation to greater strength, prosperity, and peace.”
If Romney had been picked, it would have been a way for him to embrace public service and end his career on a high note, rather than with his defeat in 2012, said Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
“I believe in public service, too,” Drezner said, “so I would credit Romney with at least making a diplomatic effort.”Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.